Painting of Mother Jones
by Rupert Garcia

What Would Mother Jones Do?

When I became a psychiatric nurse 20 years ago, many of my healthcare colleagues could only think about the movie, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. They envisioned my unit full of ranting lunatics and joked about my working with Nurse Ratched. Unfortunately, attitudes about the mentally ill haven’t changed much over time. What has changed is the health care system. Patients are loosing access to care.

Several years ago, a patient came to my psychiatric unit from the emergency room. In report, the emergency room nurse told me he was a “frequent flyer.” She said the patient apparently complained about pain and fatigue for months, but because he didn’t have insurance, no one really took the time to figure out what his problem was and he would be discharged ASAP. Now, because the pain was stirring up the voices in his head, he was being admitted to psych. The emergency room nurse said, “Please, see what you can do for him. He looks really bad.”
When I walked into his room, my patient was in bed, curled in the fetal position, clutching his abdomen and crying out in pain. His dry skin was jaundice. His dark eyes were sunken and he was emaciated. His body was withering away. He grabbed my hand and begged me to listen. “Yes, I have schizophrenia. Yes, I hear voices. But that isn’t why I came to the hospital. I told the doctor I’m in pain, but I heard him tell the nurse ‘he’s crazy’ and to have me admitted to the psychiatric unit. Please help me.” I called our unit’s psychiatrist STAT. The patient was transferred to a medical unit, but it was to no avail. My patient died two weeks later of pancreatic cancer.

Nurses are viewed as “Angels of Mercy.” Mother Jones was viewed by her admirers as an angel and as an impious Joan of Arc. Others said she was “the most dangerous woman in America.” Mary Harris Jones (1837-November 30, 1930) worked to rid the country of child labor, and taught the downtrodden about collective power. While I know what Mother Jones would think about today’s health care system—she would despise it—I wonder what she would do about it if she were working today as a nurse. I’m sure whatever she would do, it would involve a good fight, and that she’d go down in nursing history along with Clara Barton and Florence Nightingale.

Patients need champions. What would Mother Jones do? The same thing nurses around the world do everyday. Nurses advocate and care for their patients. I dedicate Nurse Ratched’s Place to Mother Jones. I think she would have made a great psychiatric nurse.

“I am not a humanitarian. I am a hell raiser.” Mother Jones